At this point, the activists are accused of slyly approving or morally justifying maoist violence by suggesting that state violence could provide an explanatory context for it. Furthermore, activists are accused of creating a "moral equivalence" between the state security forces and the maoists by demanding that maoist violence be "seen in the context of " state violence. Two commentators accuse activists of creating a moral equivalence "between the damage chemotherapy causes and the cancer it treats".
But what does this term "moral equivalence" really mean? Apparently, this term originates from the title of William James's 1910 essay The Moral Equivalent of War. Not having read this essay, I can't quite grasp the connection between the title of the essay and the way the phrase "moral equivalence" is used. But more helpful perhaps is Jeane Kirkpatrick's use of the term in attacking critics of US foreign policy for seeing "no moral difference" between the the actions of the Soviet Union and those of the US government. Applying this sense to the Indian debate between human rights activists and their critics on the issue of maoist violence vs. state violence, it is easy to see what the critics mean: that the activists see "no moral difference" between maoists and the Indian state in the way each side deploys violence in the furtherance of their aims, when in fact there are several moral differences (at least according to the critics of human rights activists)
1. The state is assumed to be in a morally superior position because it is supposed to enjoy a legitimate monopoly on violence. The maoists on the other hand usurp the right to use violence in furtherance of their supposedly heinous end - the overthrow of the Indian state.
2. The state's actions are supposed to be based on the constitution and the rule of law, whereas the maoists reject as oppressive both the constitution and the rule of law that it defines.3. The state is supposed to have the backing of the demos, expressed through the electoral process. The maoists have refused to engage in electoral politics. Where they do enjoy support, it is sometimes exacted through coercion and fear, and sometimes earned through winning hearts and minds by exploiting the disaffection of their supporters with the agencies of the state, and sometimes through a combination of both.
Against these arguments, it is necessary to note a few others.
a. The state monopoloy of violence often loses legitimacy when it is exercised with little regard for proportionality, for the dignity of the victims, or when it fails to distinguish between innocent bystanders and active threats. The state often deploys its violence in a manner that forces people to turn to the state's opponents for protection from the state. The state's violence thus turns the alleged cure (or 'chemotherapy') into the catalyst for the cancer by encouraging its rapid spread. In the relatively rare cases when the forces of justice and accountability kick in, it takes years for the guilty to be punished, or for the victims to obtain redress. 'Justice delayed is justice denied' is a trite shibboleth that has apparently been forgotten by those responsible for the administration of justice in India, but realized everyday by those are meant to receive justice. It's possible to argue that the state might commit mistakes occasionally in the heat of the moment. But the patent inability of the state to learn from its mistakes - despite National Human Rights Commissions, comissions of inquiry into actual incidents, and the continued recording by human rights organizations of acts of state criminality - suggests that the criminality of the state is not an aberration, but a structural feature.
b. I have argued earlier that the state's legitimate monopoly on violence - however necessary it might seem - needs to be exercised with the greatest care to prevent it from degenerating into a monopoly on criminal behaviour. In the case of the Indian state, this care seems to be largely absent. So what we have in, for example, Operation Green Hunt, is a state deploying public funds to violently suppress one group of its citizens - usually the most economically vulnerable and socially and politically the least powerful - whose rights under the Constitution are being violated in order to satisfy the desires of another, far more economically and politically powerful, group of citizens.
c. The state's agents are in a sense even more culpable for any criminal behaviour they engage in than the maoists, precisely because their actions need to be held to a higher standard of legality than that of criminals. The state is supposed to be an upholder of the law and a protector of the citizen. It cannot be claimed in defence of the state that the protection of the citizen from the criminal requires criminal action.
d. Far from asserting that there is no moral difference between maoists and the state, human rights activists are in fact insisting on the precise opposite: that the state - by virtue of its basis in the popular will, as well as by having its actions defined by reference to laws - has, except in the most extreme cases when it is itself under attack (such as in Mumbai last November), the obligation of not engaging in criminal behaviour while protecting citizens. Precisely for the reasons outlined in 1-3 above, human rights activists insist that there is, and should be, a normative difference between the state and the terrorists it fights against. This difference is eliminated when the state engages in indiscriminate criminal behaviour.
Critics of human rights activists, on the other hand, seem to be willing to accept all state actions as legitimate and morally justified if they rid society of terrorists and criminals, irrespective of the context or circumstance. It is the critics, therefore, who are drawing an illicit normative equivalence between the terrorist/criminal and the state by insisting that the best way for the state to deal with terrorists is to become terroristic itself. In practice, as I have tried to argue here, there is no moral equivalence, nor should there be.